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Be careful what you wish for…..


I’m afraid I’m going to get serious on this one…..

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about identity.  Who I am, how I define myself, what is important to me?  At the same time I have been having a sporadic debate with Laurie Ruettimann about the connections between work and identity.  

Laurie’s view as far as I understand it is that we work for money and for no other reason.  She argues that, “loving your job because it makes some kind of ’spiritual sense for you’ is not an inalienable right. It’s a luxury afforded to a privileged class of people.”

I don’t agree with this, I believe there is a greater psychological need that humans satisfy through purposeful endeavor and that work satisfies this need.  And more so, that this is as much a working class need as it is a middle class need.  In fact, its a base human need.

History is littered with examples of workers fighting to protect their place of employment, look at the Swan Hunter shipyard, the Rover factory and of course not forgetting the entire coal mining industry.  Now I’m not saying that some of the fight wasn’t about protecting jobs and therefore pay, but it was also about identity.  Communities grew up and existed around these enterprises, workers were proud to be part of them, generations of families worked together in the same location.

Then there is the research into the impact of unemployment on psychological well being.  It should come as no surprise that unemployed people feel higher levels of anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with their life, poor self-esteem, negativity regarding the future than in matched groups of employed people.  This isn’t just about money, this is about self worth and sense of purpose.

I wonder whether the difference isn’t that in the past it was easier to identify with our employers.  We were proud of the boats we built, the cars we made, the coal we dug.  We knew what we were doing, who we were doing it for and why.   We most probably also knew who our employer was.  These days, with globalization  our bosses could be anyone, anywhere.  We produce things that we don’t understand and provide services that people don’t really need or want. We’re in a world where a banker used to be a proud honorable occupation, but these days they are scum of the earth.

And at the same time we are constantly being told that our lives need to be more enriching, we need to be in the gym, every day, socially networked up to our eyeballs, we need to be green and organic and in touch with our inner self.  In turn, HR professionals (most of whom wouldn’t recognise original thought if it jumped on them from behind and pulled their eyelids down over their knees) try to create more far fetched “engagement” strategies to bridge this gap between the increasing complex desires and the increasing complex industries.

Employers’ attempts to engage employees aren’t part of some nefarious plan to mind wash people (well in most cases!) they are merely cack-handed attempts to try and explain the link between employee and employer in increasingly complex businesses and industries.  I remain convinced that if you asked 100 people the simple question, “Tell me about yourself?” that over 90% would tell you about their employment within 60 seconds.  And that is simply because for so many of us, work is an important part of who and what we are.  And thats ok.  

We work long hours and even if the lucky ones are cash rich, they are time poor.  Work has always formed part of the definition of self and this is nor a bad thing.  Turning it into a purely financial transaction makes us a commodity….human capital.  At that is the start of a slippery slope that would suit many people with troubling views on the employment relationship.

Laurie, I respect your views, you raise some interesting points and have a lively and informative blog.  But on this one you are wrong.  Dangerously wrong.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Laurie permalink
    05/24/2009 18:06

    I love being dangerous! Good thoughts. We bring our personal philosophies to work and we live with the consequences. I’m happy with mine.

  2. Sayya26 permalink
    05/25/2009 15:31

    @ Laurie- see what I meant when I told you my husband thinks your thoughts on HR are dangerous? :p

    This article does ring some truth to it. For some, work is an extension of themselves and it can indeed contribute to the overall well-being of an individual.

    Look, it takes all kinds to make up this world. Those who find deeper meaning and purpose in their job, and those whose job is just that- a job- something to do to earn an income and provide for themselves or their families.

    I dare to say both Laurie and HRD may have valid points?

  3. Anonymous permalink
    05/26/2009 09:08

    I think you’re terribly clever and all that, but I actually disagree with you on this one.

    Item the First: “loving your job because it makes some kind of ’spiritual sense for you’ is not an inalienable right. It’s a luxury afforded to a privileged class of people.”

    I would argue that from an anthropological perspective this is nearly true, however it’s a luxury provided to a modern class of people, not necessarily a privileged class. As we’ve grown and not been forced to take on the family farm or blacksmith shop or what have you we have learnt that there is more out there. We can want for more. We may not get more, but we can want for more.

    Item 2: “Work has always formed part of the definition of self and this is not a bad thing.”

    Completely disagree with you there, my dear HRD. Associating a sense of self with work means that, in the loss of a job, it is a loss of self. This then, I think, is a part of why depression and anxiety is prevalent in a job loss situation (the other part being “how do we pay the bills?”). If you are made redundant then it is felt that you are not needed. The company did not need you and did not want you. You are not valuable to them, nor do you have value.

    Item 3: “Turning it into a purely financial transaction makes us a commodity….human capital.” Is it human capital or simply a means to an end? And is a means to an end such a bad thing?

  4. HRD permalink
    05/26/2009 11:02

    Thank you for your comments. Looks like I might be pissing in the wind on this one, but I remain unrepentant in my view.

    @Laurie – I totally appreciate that this is your view, your personal philosophy, but your views are read by a lot of HR bods and I’m afraid many of them are probably take this as mantra based on a lot of the comments you get. If HR people are going out there thinking that employees are just a financial transaction….that is a problem.

    @Sayya26 – You’re probably right that we both have a valid point, but I’m not feeling charitable right now!

    @Anonymous – Not entirely sure I understand your first point. A blacksmith is a classic example of a profession which gave self worth and identity. I agree that when lay offs are made this does impact self worth and that takes time to build up again, but this is like saying never love so you never get rejected.

    And as for the last point, this is the old Sartre Camus argument (no really it is) do the means justify the ends or the ends justify the means. I say we should encourage drug dealers. After all they are just making money as a means to an end…its purely a financial transaction.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    05/26/2009 12:38

    But a blacksmith is surely the perfect example of someone who apprenticed into a trade and didn’t really have any say about it? It was in the family. You infer a high degree of self-worth based on an inherited trade, but does it mean that there is identity and self-worth or was that simply What Was Done?

    And yes. Drug dealing is a financial transaction, for which users are there with liquid income courtesy of the understood pride and identity they have in their jobs. I mean, since they’re so happy being bankers/lawyers/librarians, they just augment that with dodgy pharmaceuticals, yes?

  6. humanresourcespufnstuf permalink
    05/26/2009 14:27

    I gotta go with Laurie on this one. Work is work. It does however provide me with the means to achieve a higher end, my own happiness, through getting paid, and thus having the ability to spend my time and money as I choose.

    I spend considerable time in the Army in a combat arms unit, and know that there are jobs that transcend the money in exchange for services model. We wore the uniform for a higher purpose and were united together for mutual survival.

    That being said, civilian work, for the most part isn’t life and death, and it’s a grind. I exchange my time and expertise for my employers coin, and then spend the coin how I choose. The reason unemployed people have higher anxiety isn’t necessarily the lack of work related identity, it’s the lack of money that, which creates stress (how to pay bills, feed oneself, etc.)

  7. HRD permalink
    05/27/2009 19:00

    @All – Thanks for your comments. It would seem that you guys are all mainstream and I am the edgy different one…so I’ll take that mantle 🙂

    I’ll keep preaching that people are people not assets and need more than money. On day perhaps I’ll convince you…but then again….

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